UPDATE: April 9, 11:10 a.m. -- The New York Post reports Monday on another prominent American working with Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman, who has ties to a controversial Iranian nuclear power plant. In this case, the American is Jack Rosen, real estate developer, chair of the American Jewish Congress and head of the Council of the World's Jewry.
The Post says it told Rosen that Fridman's Alfa Bank helped fund Atomstroyexport, the company that completed the nuclear power plant at Bushehr.
Rosen says that he then reached out to Fridman -- and that Fridman's explanation was good enough for him.
"If [Fridman] knew he directly funded a nuclear facility in Iran, I would express my disappointment," Rosen told The Post. "He told me that Alfa never directly funded nuclear projects."
Many banks, Rosen said, have no idea how the money they lend is used.
Rosen insisted that Fridman told him "he wasn't aware how their money was used."
According to the Post, Fridman and Rosen teamed up to invest $1 billion in U.S. real estate.
WASHINGTON -- GOP power broker Haley Barbour's lobby shop, BGR Group, represents a Russian bank that has financed a company that helped build Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, according to corporate documents and lobbying disclosure records. The bank is owned by a secretive oligarch, Mikhail Fridman, who has met at least twice with White House officials in the last few years, according to visitor logs.
Barbour, one of the most influential Republicans within the party, considered a bid for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and has been speculated about as a possible vice-presidential pick. Last year, he called Iran "the number one threat to peace and stability."
It's a measure of how much political saber-rattling in Washington is tempered by the lure of lobbying dollars that his firm represents a bank that has apparently helped fund Iran's nuclear aspirations.
Fridman's Alfa Bank is the largest private bank in Russia and has helped make its owner one of the richest men in the world. The London Sunday Times has called Fridman's company Alfa Group, which owns Alfa Bank, "one of the most controversial business empires on the planet."
Alfa Bank has been a client of BGR Group since 2002, according to lobbying disclosure records. Barbour was elected governor of Mississippi in November 2003, left the firm, and took office in January 2004. After two gubernatorial terms, he returned to his Washington lobby shop this year. During his time as governor, Barbour continued to receive payments related to his past BGR Group activities through a blind trust -- payments of at least $300,000 per year, according to the trust agreement.
In the mid-2000s, according to its own public reports, Alfa Bank provided financing to Atomstroyexport, a state-controlled Russian company that was a major player in Iran's developing nuclear energy program.
When first approached about this story, Jeffrey Birnbaum, the top spokesman for BGR Group, and a former Wall Street Journal reporter who specialized in in-depth coverage of lobbying, dismissed any effort to link BGR, Alfa and Iran as misguided.
"Just because Alfa bank had a line of credit with an entity that did business with Iran does not make Alfa a financier of Iran's nuclear program," Birnbaum told HuffPost via email. "The last time Alfa had any contact with any part of this was way back in 2008." He said the bank chose to back away from what he dubbed "even the bank shot connections" after the United Nations Security Council voted to sanction Iran.
Birnbaum also cited a denial the company gave to Fox News in 2007 when Fox reported that Fridman was "a key figure in Russia's dangerous policy of selling nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic of Iran" and that Alfa Bank "serves as the primary financial agent for the nuclear power project." (The Fox News article did not note the connection between Alfa Bank and BGR Group, focusing mostly on Alfa's telecommunications ambitions.)
Alfa's 2007 statement denied that it was the "primary" source of financing for Iran's nuclear program and insisted that Fox had "erroneously suggested that Alfa-Bank, and by extension its Chairman, Mikhail Fridman, and the Alfa Group as a whole, plays a principal and central role in the development of Iran's nuclear power program and the sale of aircraft to the government of Iran."
Birnbaum forwarded detailed questions from HuffPost to Alfa Bank's CEO. (He didn't identify the CEO by name, but the bank's current chief is Rushan Khvesyuk.) The CEO replied, through Birnbaum, that Alfa Bank no longer has investments inside Iran and that all "indirect contact" ended after the 2008 U.N. sanctions.
The CEO otherwise declined to supply specific details about the nature and breadth of the bank's connection to Atomstroyexport and another state-run nuclear entity, Rosatom, with which Alfa Bank had announced an arrangement.
"Alfa has had a relationship only with Atomstroyexport, not the others," the CEO replied via Birnbaum. "With Rosatom, it was all words, nothing happened. Bank laws prohibit Alfa from answering the question about how much money it's made available."
Birnbaum also declined several requests to clarify what exactly the funds supplied by Alfa Bank to Atomstroyexport were intended for or what BGR knew about them. Without that information, it is impossible to know whether the funds were specifically applied to the Iran power plant program.
Atomstroyexport's actions during this time, however, are not in dispute: It finished the construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, the centerpiece of Iran's nuclear program.
'NUMBER ONE THREAT TO PEACE AND STABILITY'
The Bushehr nuclear facility has not always been a source of controversy. When construction began in 1975, American and Western European companies provided materials and technical expertise to help build the plant. Only after relations between the West and Iran iced over, and Russia stepped in to help complete the project, did the U.S. start to eye it warily.
In 1995, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, worried that technology from the Bushehr project could be used to boost Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon, urged Russia to back out of the project.
"We are deeply concerned that some nations are prepared to cooperate with Iran in the nuclear field," Christopher said at the time. "I will not mince words. These efforts risk the security of the entire Middle East."
More recently, American officials have said they are not concerned by the activities at Bushehr.
In 2007, around the time Alfa was financing Atomstroyexport, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed the plant as a proper component of Iran's civilian nuclear program.
In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.N.,"Our problem is not with their reactor at Bushehr. Our problem is with their facilities at places like Natanz and their secret facility at Qom and other places where we believe they are conducting their weapons program."
Still, military and intelligence experts have considered Bushehr enough of a concern that it is thought to have been the target of a cyber warfare virus called Stuxnet, which the U.S. and Israel reportedly deployed to set back Iran's nuclear program.
For Haley Barbour, a co-founder of BGR, the entire nuclear program in Iran is suspect. In a 2011 speech at a security conference in Israel, Barbour warned that Iran's goal is to destroy "Western civilization." At the time, the former head of the Republican Governors Association was considering a bid for the GOP presidential nomination. His hawkish stance is in line with GOP orthodoxy on Iran.
"For those who care about Israel, or about the Western world for that matter, we must recognize and focus on Iran as the crucial strategic issue: Iranian support of terrorism, its destabilization of governments, its military nuclear program, and its goal of eradicating Israel and, frankly, of destroying Western civilization and its foundational values," Barbour said. "It's important to debate the Iranian threat. At a minimum, it should lead to a strategic consensus not just in Israel but in the world: Today, the number one threat to peace and stability is Iran."
Barbour's specific reference to a "military nuclear program" might seem to raise the possibility that he believes Iran also has, and is entitled to, a peaceful, domestic nuclear industry, of which many consider Bushehr to be a part. A BGR spokesman rejected that notion, however. "I saw Haley Barbour over the weekend, and please know he told me he believes Iran's nuclear program is a weapons program," said Loren Monroe, when asked about this interpretation of Barbour's words.
That's in line with a solidifying consensus among GOP presidential candidates about Iran's nuclear program. Other than non-interventionist Ron Paul, the three remaining candidates have all criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the Iranian situation and threatened war over the other country's nuclear program.
"I want to make sure that the people of this nation understand that he failed us not only here at home; he's failed us in dealing with the greatest threat we face, which comes from Iran," Mitt Romney said during the current campaign.
Like his fellow candidates, Romney has rarely, if ever, distinguished between Iran's nuclear weapons program and its civilian energy projects.
"In a Romney administration, the world will know that the bond between Israel and America is unbreakable -- that our opposition to a nuclear Iran is absolute," Romney said in March. "We must not allow Iran to have the bomb or the capacity to make a bomb."
Rick Santorum, too, has targeted the entire Iranian program. "I would be saying to the Iranians, 'You either open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and, and make them available to inspectors, or we will degrade those facilities through airstrikes and make it very public that we are doing that,'" he told NBC's "Meet The Press."
"I would say to every foreign scientist that's going in to Iran to help them with their program, 'You will be treated as an enemy combatant like an al Qaeda member,'" Santorum added.
Alfa Bank has spent some $3 million on BGR's services since retaining the firm in 2002. In the fourth quarter of 2011, it paid the lobby group $140,000, according to the group's most recent filing. BGR's total lobbying revenue topped $15 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Not every client gets personal treatment from BGR Chairman Ed Rogers, but he is listed as one of the two lobbyists working on the Alfa account. Rogers is a high-profile Washington establishment figure who regularly appears on National Public Radio as a "Republican strategist." He and Barbour have a long history. Their firm, founded in 1991, was initially known as Barbour Griffith & Rogers; Rogers named his son Haley.
According to court documents related to Rogers' divorce, Rogers owns a 50 percent stake in BGR Group. According to those same documents, he "has or had an ownership interest" in a BP energy subsidiary, TNK-BP. Alfa is a substantial owner of TNK-BP, making Rogers' past or current interest yet another measure of the financial links between Alfa and him.
Birnbaum said that Rogers does not hold an interest in TNK-BP and that the divorce filing was incorrect. He added that BGR does not comment on its own ownership.
Publicly available Alfa financial reports from the last decade often included references to its work in Iran and in nuclear power plant construction. The reports also raised concerns that the "political and economic environment" around Iran might affect the bank's returns.
"Shifts in the foreign policy of the Russian government and changes in its key global relationships could adversely affect the Russian political and economic environment in general and, thus, Alfa-Bank's business," states one 2006 document, available online. "Russia's foreign policy interests have often diverged from the interests and goals of its main trading partners (for example, with the EU in connection with confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions)."
A separate statement from 2006 noted that Alfa Bank's "clients and partners currently include large enterprises in the atomic sector such as Rosenergoatom, TVEL, Atomstroiexport and Techsnabexport (Tenex)." A 2007 Alfa financial document was even more explicit: "In 2005 and 2006, certain corporate customers to which the Alfa Banking Group provided loans were Russian industry leaders such as ... Atomstroyexport, a general contractor involved in nuclear power plant construction."
For his part, Alfa's founder, Mikhail Fridman, has the political access that typically accompanies great wealth. He had meetings at the White House in May 2010 and again in May 2011. Each time, according to White House logs, Richard Burt, a former top diplomat who negotiated the 1991 START I nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, accompanied Fridman.
Burt said that he couldn't recall precisely, but believes that he was the one who set up the meetings at the White House. Fridman's goal was to strengthen ties between the United States and Russia and to discuss Russian ascension to the World Trade Organization, Burt said.
Burt has longstanding connections with both BGR Group and Alfa. He was previously executive chairman of Diligence LLC, a corporate intelligence operation largely populated by former spies, according to the company's website. Burt still serves on the company's advisory board. In 2005, BGR and Diligence became ensnared in scandal after Diligence, working as a BGR contractor, allegedly attempted to obtain corporate records of an Alfa rival from the auditor KPMG. An extensive BusinessWeek investigation detailed the effort. KPMG sued Diligence for fraud and unjust enrichment. According to BusinessWeek, Diligence settled the case by paying KPMG $1.7 million. (Diligence declined to comment.) IPOC Growth Fund, the Alfa rival, also sued Diligence and BGR Group. That case was settled in 2008, according to court documents.
Rogers, the BGR chairman now lobbying for Alfa, was an early owner of Diligence. In fact, the company was set up inside BGR's Pennsylvania Avenue office.
"I have been a consultant to the Alfa Group, but not as a lobbyist," Burt said.
Burt also emphasized that whatever Alfa's connection to Bushehr, it didn't amount to financing a weapons program there. "Bushehr has no relationship with the Iranian weapons program," he said. "They're not doing any enrichment there."
Burt described Fridman, who is Jewish, as a passionate supporter of Israel and said Fridman leads an organization in Russia dedicated to advocating on behalf of Israel.
Meanwhile, Birnbaum, the BGR spokesman, warned HuffPost that publishing an article about the connections between Alfa, BGR and Bushehr could warrant legal action.
"My client is concerned that you're preparing an article that is designed to harm the reputations of the people and companies it mentions -- despite the facts that I've sent you several times. It believes strongly that there is no story here and that none should be published. To do otherwise would be a malicious stretch of the facts. We are therefore consulting with counsel and looking at legal options," Birnbaum said via email.
He also described as "malicious" drawing a link between Barbour and any activities conducted by a company represented by the lobby shop he founded.
"The notion of 'payments' to Gov. Barbour is sophistry," Birnbaum wrote in a separate email. "He was due a pre-set payout for his former ownership of the firm, as I understand it, that had nothing to do with any account at the firm at all."
In a follow-up email, Birnbaum noted the remarks of the current secretary of state and her immediate predecessor about Bushehr. "You might want to check the words of support that Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton offered about Russian involvement in the Bushehr power plant. It ought to change your thinking that this is even a story. As you know, my client believes strongly that it is not a story," Birnbaum said. "For that reason, the client has decided not to discuss the story with you beyond the many responses I have already given."
HuffPost asked if the reference to Rice and Clinton's support meant he was confirming Alfa's involvement with Bushehr. "I did not answer yes," he said.
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